Interview with Karen Davis

Over a bowl of party mix at Jackie’s Fifth Amendment, downtown artist Jess Barbagallo and Karen Davis sat down to discuss their upcoming project “Without Me I’m Something.”

Barbagallo is a 2012-13 Artist-in-Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange and a self-proclaimed Karen Davis fanboy.  The pair met three years ago through a mutual friend and Barbagallo was soon a devotee of Davis’s infrequent, but fascinating performances.  Here is an excerpt from a conversation between the two in anticipation for their first Work-in-Progress showing at BAX (January 24 at 8 PM, 27 at 6 PM, 421 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215).

Jess Barbagallo and Karen Davis

Jess Barbagallo: What do you wanna drink?

Karen Davis: Is this a date?

JB: It is. You’re paying.

KD: Lesbian nation.

JB: Trans nation.

KD: I come to the bar for laughs, I get social studies.  Gimme that bowl.

JB: So Karen.  I wanna give the people who might be unfamiliar with our work an idea of what we’re up to together.  How we met, shared interests …

KD: You scratch mine, I don’t scratch yours …


JB: Exactly.

KD: We’re not taping this.  How ya gonna … let ‘em know?

JB: I’m going to transcribe it.  I borrowed this tape recorder from my friend Chris.

KD:  Are you good at that?

JB: Borrowing things?

KD: Hey!  Gimme that sweater back!


JB: You mean transcribing?

KD: Yes, Sir Jessica.

JB: You can’t call me that!


JB: Only my mother can call me that.

(At this point in the interview, Karen dumps the remaining party mix over her head.)

KD: You are now baptized in the Catholic Church!

JB: Oh fuck.

(Jess and Karen clean up the pretzels and crackers, then resume their conversation.)

JB:  So, why don’t you kind of describe how we met.  What were your first impressions of me?

KD: Oh, I don’t know … “Who’s that scrawny bastard?”

JB: No, seriously …

KD: I’m serious.  I said, “Who’s that scrawny bastard?”  I mean.  No.  I thought … I thought. Well, you were screwin’ my roommate at the time, Jess.

JB: I always forget that part of the story.

KD: I sure as hell wish I could.  What were you doin’ in there?  Stranglin’ a goat, tough guy?

JB: I don’t know.  This is embarrassing.

KD: Sounded like … free-range day at the pony farm.

JB: Oh, Jesus.  That’s disgusting.


KD: So, you were fucking my roommate … am I allowed to say her name?  No?  I won’t.  Good.
(yelling into tape recorder)  She’s dead to me.  Like ya father!  I still owe her a hundred bucks in utilities anyways.

JB: Continue.

KD: So you’d been … hangin’ around, eating my leftovers and one night I was on the couch and I’d just had this … lousy day.  They told me I didn’t qualify for Medicaid, which is like telling a manatee maybe they should try grass for awhile, and then I showed up to a gig, I’m not shitting you, I showed up for a gig that I’d signed up for ON-LINE and they actually had the audacity not to let me go on.  Merry Birthday.  So I went home, cued up Sandra Bernhard’s Without You I’m Nothing and you were there – like a fuckin’ creeper!  Can I say that?

JB: They might edit it.  I don’t know.

(Karen paws around on the bar a bit.)

KD: I don’t have anything left to pour on my head …

JB: So I was there and I felt …. extremely awkward because I really wanted to join you.  Because I love that movie.  Can you tell our readership about the movie?

KD: Readership.  Readers.

(Karen makes some funny sound.)

JB: You don’t like readers.  That’s so funny.  You’re a really smart person.

KD: I am.  I just worry about the long-term effects of sitting on your ass all day reading obscure blog posts about underearning comedians.

JB: See, I like to think of you as an experimental and underappreciated comic.

KD: Do you wanna be my landlord?  I didn’t think so.  Now, Sandra Bernhard is not an “experimental” comic.  She’s just a good comic.  Or I have a soft spot for her.  And this film she shot is like a stand-up comedy special, but they’ve faked in all these people and these sets so it looks like she’s on a road tour.  It’s got … production values.

JB: Have you done a road tour?

KD: If I take a car to the gig, that’s a road tour.  You’re a talker.

JB: I know.

KD: Anyway, she shows up at these clubs and she tells stories in this horrible voice.  She’s a foghorn!  And then she sings.  She sings a lot.

JB: She does covers.

KD: Yup.  She’s great.  I mean, she’s great.

JB: What do you think about the racial content?  It seems to me to be this work about appropriation.  You don’t mention that the covers she performs are the work of black artists … Diana Ross, Nina Simone, Prince … and she front-ends these “bits” with stories from her Jewish childhood, which sounds to be pretty WASP-aspiring.

KD: They’re parodies.  It seems like everyone gets shit on a bit.  She gives it to herself first.  Or last.  Someone writes “Fuck you” on a table cloth after she performs the last number.  A black woman.  And she’s the only woman in the club which is what makes it the really great joke.

JB: Because she’s alone?

KD: Have you ever done stand-up?

JB: Once.  For a class.  I was sixteen.

KD: Did you make ‘em laugh?

JB: I jumped out a window.

KD: Kid stuff.  How many floors?

JB: I think I jumped into a bush.  It was snowy.

KD: It always ends with a jump. See, it’s kind of my wet noodle dream to be the last one standing.  I finish and then I just stand there.  I just stand there looking at people …

JB: That’s sort of a strategy or trope of postmodern performance.  That discomfort.

KD: I just think it could be sorta dreamy there, kiddo.  Like a loop.  But not a looper.  I hate loopers.  I hate music.

JB: Did you study performance art in college?

KD: I dropped out.  After my first year.  I didn’t like scheduling my drinking around classes.  Gave me the shakes.

(Karen starts to shake.  A middle-aged woman at the bar expresses some irritation.)

JB: A lot of your work is about drinking.

KD: A lot of your life is about drinking.

JB: I don’t think we should say that, in reference to a residency.

KD: Ssshhh. Everyone be quiet now.  No.  Come on.  My work’s about taking a walk and being in my apartment.  And then some other stuff happens.

JB: Like what?  You sound like Ellen DeGeneres.

KD: Do you think she’s ever had a problem?

JB: She’s gay.

KD: I’m straight.  It sucks being a human.

JB: Are you dating anyone?

KD: I thought I was.

JB: So, we met when you were watching that movie on your couch.

KD: I think I’d passed out.  I don’t know.  I don’t remember it that well.

JB: Well, what I remember is you were coming home from a gig and I’d just gotten into this huge fight with your roommate …

KD: Right.  You had cold feet.  I had a blanket.

JB: Did I hit on you?

KD: You either tried to feel me up or you lost your keys in the couch cushions.

JB: That’s the Barbagallo charm.

KD: I would’ve cuddled with a gecko.  Can we get a gecko in the rider?

JB: For the record, Karen Davis and I have never had sexual relations.

(At this point the duo orders another set of drinks and gets down to business.)

JB: So, tell me why you agreed to come along with me on this residency at BAX.

KD: You coerced me with peanuts.

JB: What else?

KD: I was curious.  I work really sporadically because I get anxious when I gig.  It’s like performing mortifications or something.  It’s like wearing a hairshirt, but I can’t stop doing it.  I like to feel people watching me.  I like feeling hurt when people don’t laugh because it’s like a really good version of getting pissed off.  I mean, the laughter is uneasy.  It’s always really uneasy.  In my mind.  And I like that alone feeling afterward.  I like my old Absolut.  Absolutely.

JB: This is a theme.  Loneliness.  But you’ve chosen to collaborate with me.  Is that friendship?

KD: Are we collaborating?

JB: I’m interested in exploring the role between compere and main attraction.

KD: What does that mean?  With father?

JB: I don’t know.  It’s French.  The compere is the master of ceremonies.  I was reading an article about audience reception in stand-up comedy and they said one of the key components is the person who introduces the comic to the audience.  And whenever I’ve seen your work, I’ve thought maybe you could be framed better.

KD: I like the assholes who introduce me.  I’m wary of fans.  I don’t like the help.

JB: But you have a Facebook page.

KD: My intern made that.

JB: Do you have an intern?

KD: It’s like that game.  One of these things is not true.  But I do have an intern.  He’s staying on my couch.

JB: The French guy?

KD: Andy.  Yes.  I call him Andy.  He really likes to cook.  He bought a cast iron when he got off the boat.

JB: This has turned into a weird Francophile kind of thing.

KD: When in Park Slope.

JB: So, what can people who come to BAX look forward to this January?

KD: I hate this, Jess.

JB: What?

KD: This promo shit.  I don’t know.  I’ve been toying around with some ideas.  Either, I’ll show you some of my big bits or … I know you want me to recreate some stuff.  Or you’ve talked to me about all this mind is a muscle shit.  Yvonne Rainer?

JB: No.  I mean yes, but I don’t know anything about her so I don’t think that would be a great reference point.  We talked about Andy Kaufman.  We talked about Sandra Bernhard …

KD: We ripped the name off her special!  I like it.

JB: Me too.  Maria Bamford’s good.

KD: Yeah.  But I hate watching her do the same material twice.  Why can’t they just build a beautiful gold palace around her, let her eat grapes?

JB: I don’t know Karen.  I’m really hungry.

Stay tuned for more!!